Mayoral candidate and current St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Blackmon is facing scrutiny from a city tenant union after filing a series of eviction lawsuits following his acquisition of Paradise Apartments, a 10-unit complex in South St. Pete.
The cases feature residents who have lived at the property for years, some of whom were only slightly behind on rent, and one tenant who faced eviction just days after his son was murdered.
The eviction cases raise bigger questions among tenants and community activists about gentrification and affordable housing in the city — a platform Blackmon has advocated for in his mayoral campaign.
Blackmon became the owner of the complex, which houses primarily lower-income residents, on April 30. He bought the property from former landlords Gerald Caravan and Diane Shockley.
But, since acquiring the property, trouble has been brewing in Paradise.
Court documents show Blackmon terminated month-to-month leases, which tenants had been moved to after the recent expiration of a yearly lease, and notified several residents that they were to vacate their homes in two-and-a-half-weeks. The Tenant Union said it fears Blackmon may be trying to vacate lower-income residents in hopes of fixing up the property and upping the prices to make a profit.
Blackmon filed three eviction cases in Pinellas County courts, all against tenants who lived at the property before it changed ownership.
While Carolee Blackmon, Robert Blackmon’s mother and manager of the properties, had the eviction cases dismissed, the St. Pete Tenants Union says that’s not enough. They are trying to secure long-term leases for the tenants to prevent a change of heart after election season, noting the dismissals might have been an effort to thwart negative press on the issue.
“That was a win, but now the demand is that they be put on long-term leases,” said Karla Correa, with the St. Pete Tenants Union.
Dismissals for each case were filed Thursday evening. When asked why she would file the eviction cases if she was planning on dismissing them anyway, Carolee Blackmon said she just wanted to get tenants’ attention.
“I always wanted to work with them and I told them all that I was going to dismiss them all if they were going to work with me. I couldn’t get their attention, pretty much,” she said.
Alicia Roberts, one of the tenants facing eviction, has lived in Paradise Apartments for 13 years.
Roberts pays $600 a month in rent, according to the court complaint. Her yearly lease signed with the previous owners expired in December 2020. From there, the owners moved her to a month-to-month lease, likely in anticipation of a sale.
Then, on May 11 — days after Blackmon became the property owner — Roberts received a written notice the new owner had terminated her month-to-month lease, and she had to vacate the unit by May 31. That termination notice, which gave the residents about 20 days to leave, was given to the two other tenants facing eviction suits. Roberts received the notice 11 days after failing to pay her May rent.
After Roberts remained in her apartment and failed to pay June’s rent, Robert Blackmon filed the eviction suit on June 14, along with two others against John Henry Ford II and Terrence Gordon.
In the cases of Roberts and Ford, the complaints do not provide unpaid rent as a reason for eviction, according to court records. Although all three owe some amount of rent, Carolee Blackmon said she provided termination of lease as a means to prevent a sullied record for new rental applications by avoiding directly classifying the move as an eviction.
“Canceling month to month is an eviction — for any future landlord looking at it, it doesn’t show any money owed,” she said. “I did that as a favor, because if I showed how much money was owed or any other way, they would have been potentially tainted.”
Ford, like Roberts, entered into a monthly lease agreement after his yearly lease expired on March 31 this year, according to the complaint. He received the same notice on May 11 to vacate his unit. Rent for his unit was $825 a month, with St. Petersburg Housing Authority paying $681, and Ford contributing $144, according to court records.
When Ford received the notice, he was less than $200 behind on rent under the new owners, with SPHA paying the subsidized portion in May. Ford also had to file a motion to set aside a default ruling after failing to respond to court summons following the death of his son.
According to court records, Ford’s son, John Henry Ford III, died on May 26 — days before Ford was supposed to vacate the unit.
“Through excusable neglect, Defendant did not timely respond to the lawsuit,” the motion states. “On May 26, 2021, just a few days before the process server arrived at his door, Defendant’s son John Henry Ford III was the victim of a shooting and subsequently died. Following the tragic and untimely death of his son, the defendant was despondent and unable to manage his affairs.”
Gordon, who pays $184 in monthly rent, with the SPHA contributing $849, was the only tenant who had unpaid rent listed in his eviction case. While SPHA paid its portion in May, the complaint said Gordon owed $259 in rent for May and June, along with late fees.
Carolee Blackmon, however, said the previous owner claimed the tenants had not been paying their rent prior to the transition.
“SPHA says they have financial ability to pay their portion. SPHA has not to date paid their portion because of the men’s delinquency on their portions and not knowing the status of their tenancy,” Carolee Blackmon said in an email. “According to the old owner, these three just have not been paying prior to April either.”
To note, the lawyer representing the three tenants, Matt Weidner, has donated to two mayoral candidates who are running against Robert Blackmon.
Weidner has donated $9,500 to St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice — including $1,000 to her campaign account, and $6,000 to her associated political committee, Friends of Darden Rice. His law firm has so far given $2,500 to Rice’s PAC.
Florida Politics reached out to Weidner but has not received a response by the time of publishing.
It’s not just the evictions
While the as of now canceled evictions seem to contradict Robert Blackmon’s commitment to affordable housing, a stated campaign priority, tenants and advocates are also raising concerns about the condition of the apartment units.
After the eviction cases had been filed, on June 20, Correa and members of the Tenants Union met with Roberts to investigate the situation. At this point, the Blackmons had been in ownership of the property for nearly two months.
While surveying the property, Correa learned that Roberts had been without a stove for at least eight months, despite requesting a replacement — an issue that Correa said led Roberts to defer rent payments to bring attention to the issue.
“She was not paying her rent because of the awful conditions,” Correa said. “When you withhold your rent, you’re supposed to put it in a court registry, you’re supposed to do it a legal way. She didn’t know about that.”
That visit, detailed in a letter sent to Carolee Blackmon, “found that negligence has been displayed by management repeatedly in the way of maintaining key areas of the property.”
“Roberts, who has called Paradise Apartments her home for the past 13 years, reported that she has not had a stove for eight months, among other essentials,” the letter states. “Roberts has offered to pay the money that she owes to Blackmon Properties, yet they are still going through with the eviction.”
Correa continued, saying that a faulty fuse box had caused multiple tenants to use an array of extension cords because of inability to run multiple appliances at once.
The letter also details troubling interactions between the tenants and their new landlords. In one case, according to Correa and the letter, a tenant that had not had a working stove in three months was told by Carolee that “people don’t cook in the summertime.”
“Tenants have also reported harassment by the property manager, Carolee Blackmon, who has told them that they were ‘getting rid of people,’ and has verbally threatened tenants with eviction,” the letters states. “Another tenant notified us that the previous tenant in Apartment 10 had been intimidated into leaving before an eviction was even filed, and that she had lived there for 17 years.”
During that visit, Correa also mentioned that Robert Blackmon was running for Mayor, information the tenants seemed unaware of — and information that seemed to change the pace.
After a call from Roberts, who told Blackmon he “had no business running for Mayor,” things started to change, Correa said.
On June 21, a day after the visit, Roberts received a new stove. On June 22, maintenance crews flooded the property — Correa returned to find them scrambling to fix issues that had gone unaddressed for far too long.
“We even ran into a maintenance person who was like, ‘Hey, Robert’s trying his best, we just bought this property, we’re really trying to fix everything up, we’re trying to paint everything, we’re putting up lights, don’t worry about it,'” Correa said, adding that Carolee Blackmon had told residents not to speak with the Tenants Union that morning. “Clearly we have leverage if he’s running for Mayor. We have leverage, and we can get these evictions dropped.”
Carolee Blackmon, however, said the property had been poorly managed before they acquired it.
“This is the definition of affordable housing. We also pay water, sewer and garbage and have already replaced all lights, four new appliances, and some plumbing,” Carolee Blackmon wrote in an email.
“I think that it had been poorly managed before we got it, but that’s what we have generally done, fix them up, make them safe and attractive, but not so much that they’re priced out,” she said, seeming to head-off any claims of attempts to gentrify the property.
Carolee Blackmon also said she just introduced herself to the tenants in May and received negative responses.
“I came around to all of them in early May and introduced myself and asked about rent. All three yelled at me and did not let me inside,” she wrote in an email. “I have yet to see one of the apartments. I regularly came back about twice a week but again either no one was at home or wouldn’t talk to me to make any form of arrangement.”
Roberts has since applied, with the help of the Tenants Union, for Pinellas County CARES act funding to help pay rent. The Tenant Unit assisted Roberts because she is unable to afford Wi-Fi.
“We had to use the hotspots on our phones for her,” Correa said.
The Tenant’s Union is also working as a mediator to secure payment plans for all three tenants, who have each had their cases dismissed by the Blackmons.
Housing advocates suspect profit is a motivator
The St. Pete Tenant Union has been working this case along with Lucinda Johnson of the Pinellas County Democratic Party, Andy Oliver, pastor of the Allendale United Methodist Church, and Esther Eugene from the local NAACP. The St. Petersburg NAACP sent a separate letter in support of the tenants.
The community activists see the case as clear: replace the lower-income residents on the property in an attempt to fix it up, and make money.
“That area, it’s by the water, we see what they’re trying to do. We know that they’re trying to fix the place up, kick these people out, so that they can bring in more ‘desirable tenants,'” she said. “That’s part of the whole gentrification process that is happening here in St. Pete very, very quickly.”
To avoid this, the union is demanding the new property owners provide a longterm lease to the residents.
This also isn’t the first time Robert Blackmon has come under fire for his treatment of tenants.
Back in 2012, in a confirmed Facebook post, Blackmon wrote “Just bought a 5 unit apartment building downtown. Now to kick out the tenants and start the renovations.”
In 2016, Blackmon filed an eviction suit against a tenant 15 days after $1,195 in monthly rent was due. That tenant was evicted, according to court records.
Carolee Blackmon, however, said that they are not raising rents at the Paradise property, and that they are trying to work with the tenants, but have had difficulty.